A Powerful Storytelling Tool: Getting Readers to Fill In Your Character’s Blanks

You know that moment when you’re reading a story and you know what a character is thinking? You’re so in touch with him that you feel it yourself? Wonderful, isn’t it?

But this has to be handled with care. There are times when readers are eager to fill the blanks; just as many times, though, they are not. If you can work out when they will and when they won’t, you have a powerful writing tool.

Two instances in which readers won’t know what your character is thinking

1. Establishing characters

When writers introduce a protagonist, they often want to get readers on the character’s side and establish who he is. A good way is to show what matters to him and what might generate a story. Maybe he’s bored with life on his dull planet, or he wishes he could grow up faster, or he wants to get out of jail. So the writers shows a bunch of troublesome and frustrating events. But they forget to show us how the character feels about them.

We witness a scene in which the character fights with his best friend or the car breaks down—and the character hardly seems to react.

Usually when I talk to the writers, they confirm that they want the character to be wound to snapping point. But they assumed the reader would supply the reaction.

That’s risky.

Suppose we are introduced to the character in a scene that shows him getting fired from his job. The writer might be thinking: “Everyone knows this is bad. It’s obvious the character will feel crushed.” But actually there are a thousand ways to respond to this situation—liberation, fear, vengefulness, a mix of all of those. If we don’t know the character, we don’t know which it is.

Later in the book when we know the character better, we can fill the blanks. Early on, we can’t—and we don’t want to.

And often it backfires further. Because the writer doesn’t show a reaction, the reader often assumes the event washed over the hero; it didn’t matter.

If a scene is meant to establish character, don’t forget to show the character’s reaction.

2. Creating enigmatic characters

We love characters who are mysterious. That inscrutable person who won’t reveal his feelings to the reader or the other characters, who makes us uneasy, who transmits a certain something that doesn’t add up.

But many writers make their mystery characters empty instead of intriguing.

Mysterious and enigmatic characters need to tease our curiosity. They have to be created positively and actively. This is not done by under-drawing them. You need to create conundrums—dates that don’t add up, people the character claims to know who don’t exist, things he does that doesn’t make sense. Also, he must respond to things.

Rather than create an expressionless blank, give us hints that this character has a lively consciousness, but that he’s keeping his cards close to his chest.

Entice the reader to notice the mystery.

Invite the reader to fill the blanks when characters confess their feelings

Here’s a challenge. If a character confesses his attachment to another, try not to let him say: “I  love you.” Instead, set him up so the reader knows he’s saying it.

The phrase isn’t forbidden, but many writers use it as a magic wand, hoping it will add instant drama and intensity. In fact, what the characters mean is more important than the actual words.

What can they say instead? Anything that fits with the normal business of your plot, but make the reader understand “he’s telling her he loves her.” If you’ve built the tension, this is a point where you can trust the reader to fill in blanks. Perhaps one character tells a story that’s more personal than usual, but could be dismissed as  “just a story.” The other might respond in kind. Or might not notice. Or might ignore the hint. Whichever way it goes, it sustains the tension. The readers complete the equation with their own reaction. Which is very satisfying.

Final guidelines

Don’t leave readers to fill the blanks if:

  • You’re establishing character.
  • You want to create a mystery.

Do leave readers to fill the blanks if:

  • We know them well enough to read between the lines.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever struggle to describe your characters inner reactions?

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About Roz Morris | @Roz_Morris

Roz Morris published nearly a dozen novels and achieved sales of more than four million copies--and nobody saw her name because she was a ghostwriter. She is now proudly self-publishing as herself with two acclaimed literary novels My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform Three. She has also been a writing coach, editor and mentor for more than twenty years with award-winning authors among her clients. She writes a blog and the Nail Your Novel book series for writers, and teaches creative writing masterclasses for the Guardian newspaper in London. Listen to her Surrey Hills Radio show So You Want to Be a Writer.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Roz!

  2. Anonymous says

    This is excellent advice that should come with a warning label. Any random sample of greater than thirty readers will approximate the normal distribution on any variable ability of readers to “fill in the blanks.” I suggest that the best that the writer can do is to approximate the central tendency of the willingness and ability of the readers to fill in the blanks. While that focus will produce a better than chance probability of the readers succeeding in filling in the blanks, the author’s success rate is likely to be significantly less than perfect for a substantial portion of the potential reader population. That is why writing is an art form, always a serious gamble, and, in part, why few authors please the majority of readers.

  3. Katie, I love your blog and you set a very high bar with your advice. I’m honoured to be invited here!

    Anonymous – you’re right, we can never please everybody. We can probably only please readers who are like ourselves. But what we can do is develop an awareness of what works for us and what doesn’t, and find likeminded critique partners who will tell us when we’ve hit the spot. That doesn’t mean we find people who will never find negatives, but people who enjoy the same kind of fiction as we do and therefore will help us fulfil our potential.
    I like your point about writing being an artform and a gamble. All we can do is learn to practise it as well as possible, and try to honour the readers who are like ourselves. That said, there are certain common pitfalls, which is what I thought were worth addressing here, hopefully to enlighten and encourage.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  4. Thanks Roz and Katie! Enjoyed the post today on the tips dealing with where to draw the line on character development.

  5. I greatly appreciate any advice on character development. Thank you=)

  6. Once readers know the character well enough you can also set up a conflict between what the character thinks it ought to be feeling, and what it actually feels. This allows the reader a deeper insight into the character and works on the principle that sometimes outsiders can know us better than we know ourselves. Tricky though, and the character has to be very well established for it to work.

  7. Your example of a mysterious character reminds me of my favorite webcomic (I swear, some of the best writing tips come from non-text sources): one of the main characters acts bizarre, irrational, weird… and we assume he’s plain ol’ crazy. Only later do we learn that every single thing he does has an incredibly good reason behind it, and we were just missing the context.

    The result is a fantastically mysterious character who has depth and soul, and who we come to love early on, quirks and all.

  8. “But they forget to show us how the character feels about them [ …] they assumed the reader would supply the reaction.”

    Oh dear – guilty as charged, in places, from a mixture of ignorance, fear of boring the reading by spelling out the obvious and forgetting that while I know the character the reader will not. Timely post this, thank you, Roz.

  9. Reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird. There are some places in that book where the reader is given a hole to fill and it makes the reader think, which is very interesting. I think that was one of the first times that had happened for me in a very conscious way.
    An unanswered question will probably be thought about. If a book is really fat, a reader won’t read it all in one sitting (probably not at least). Sometimes when I’ve put down a book, I think about it later while I’m not reading it. But it depends on the question. I think questions are important in stories. They catch readers if the question seems important.

  10. Hi Rich – nice to see a familiar face here!

    Jennifer – you’re welcome!

    ACFlory – another familiar face, hello! That’s a very interesting example – and as you say, it only works if the reader knows the character extremely well. But what a trick to play. And you’re right – often it’s very interesting to consider the character’s self-image and how it matches up to others’ view of them. Thanks for the example.

    JWTroemner – I’ve just read a novella that pulled a trick like that. It’s very interesting, keeps you on the edge of your seat. And I like storytelling lessons from comics – they’re such a dramatic, intense medium that they remind me to always aim for impact and contrast.

    Sandra – ‘forgetting that while I know the character, the reader doesn’t’ – that’s such a common mistake. You’re certainly not alone. Glad to have helped!

    Writer4Christ – you’re right, unanswered questions will be thought about, but only if they’ve been presented in a way that intrigues or invites speculation. Sometimes writers seem to sneak them past in one line and they get lost, like clauses in the fine print of a contract. And you’re doubly right that questions are important. I remember having a discussion about this at a writing group long ago. One member was asking another what the statement of his story was. I said, hang on, isn’t it more helpful to think ‘what question is this story asking? Far more intriguing and enduring. Excellent point!

  11. I love coming here because I learn so much. Roz thanks for the tips. My problem is my Characters always end up being the same. Having only the characteristics I am aware of,or have. I need to start fleshing them out more and for that I need to do a bit more research on personalities, manerizms and family traits. Thanks !!


  12. Expanding on your comments about enigmatic characterisation – and I think one mistake that some writers make – is where we are presented with a false ambiguity. They insist we must make up our own mind but don’t give us enough “evidence” (for want of a better word) to weigh up to make up our minds. Not so much a case of a blank canvas, but perhaps with a shifting focal point and not enough detail to either? I hope that makes sense because my brain is a little scattered after writing that.

  13. Hiya.

    Just wanted to say hello and let you know I nominated you for a Very Inspiring Blogger Award. The details are here: http://bit.ly/17cy552

    Have a great day!



  14. Roz, Thank you for the helpful direction on characterization. I can see there are many facets of which we must be aware as we develop fully-rounded characters – even those who are the mysterious ones. I don’t think we have to tell the reader everything, but I do think we need to know for ourselves, the stories behind our characters so we can then be conscious of what we choose to disclose. I find it true for poetry, too. Thank you for your very useful direction.

  15. Connectingtothesoul – thanks! If you’ve already recognised that many of your characters sound similar to each other, you’re half-way to solving the problem. The key is to find the different ways they feel about life, other people, their fears, their goals. Also their dialogue – they won’t all use the same synonyms or speech rhythms. They won’t all swear or cuss, and they won’t all have the same reactions to stress. Once you start looking, there’s loads you can do to differentiate the characters.

    mgm75 – hello! You’re right, we need consistent and carefully thought-out ambiguity! Not vagueness. Even if we only show the character in glimpses.

    bethhoneycutt – yes indeed, we often know a lot more about the character than we put into the book. But this knowledge enables us to write them with authority and certainty and to make them distinct. Thanks for the comment!

  16. Fabulous post, Roz! Thank you! We are often afraid readers won´t understand but we shouldn´t underestimate them ^^

    I will have this all in mind 😀

    IT is true we can´t pretend the readers to guess at the first moment, but maybe at the end we can if we foreshadowed properly 😉



  17. Great post!

    My struggle is showing the character’s emotions without giving readers their every thought.

  18. Roz and Katie,

    Thought provoking post!

    When I want to show a character’s inner struggles, I demonstrate it through their actions. One of the greatest joys of writing is to discover the best action (not too subtle or too obvious) to bring out the character’s struggles.


  1. […] A Powerful Storytelling Tool: Getting Your readers to Fill in Your Story’s Blanks by Roz […]

  2. […] Today KM Weiland has invited me to her fabulous blog Wordplay, where I’m discussing this tricky – and exciting – balance. Do come over. […]

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